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April 2014

Transmigration stories

Environmental art by Andy Goldsworthy

Environmental art by Andy GoldsworthyMetempsychosis

by Jane Hirshfield


Some stories last many centuries,
others only a moment.
All alter over that lifetime like beach-glass,
grow distant and more beautiful with salt.

Environmental art by Andy GoldsworthyYet even today, to look at a tree
and ask the story Who are you? is to be transformed.

There is a stage in us where each being, each thing, is a mirror.

Then the bees of self pour from the hive-door,
ravenous to enter the sweetness of flowering nettles and thistle.

Next comes the ringing a stone or violin or empty bucket
gives off --
the immeasurable's continuous singing,
before it goes back into story and feeling.

In Borneo, there are palm trees that walk on their high roots.
Slowly, with effort, they lift one leg then another.

Environmental art by Andy GoldsworthyI would like to join that stilted transmigration,
to feel my own skin vertical as theirs:
an ant-road, a highway for beetles.

I would like not minding, whatever travels my heart.
To follow it all the way into leaf-form, bark-furl, root-touch,
and then keep walking, unimaginably further.

                  
                             willow leaves

The ephemeral "land art" here is by the British sculptor, photographer, and installation artist Andy Goldsworthy, whose influential work has been documented in Wood, Stone, Time, Arch, Passage, Hand to Earth, and other gorgeous art books. Goldsworthy was born in Cheshire, grew up in Leeds, studied fine art in Lancashire, and now lives and works in Scotland. You'll find his reflections on his work in the hidden picture captions. (Run your cursor over the photographs to see them.)

Environmental art by Andy Goldsworthy

Environmental art by Andy Goldsworthy

Environmental art by Andy Goldsworthy The poem above comes from Given Sugar, Given Salt by Jane Hirshfield  (Harper Perrenial), and appeared online in Poetry Chaikhana; all right reserved by the author.


Creation stories

The Days of Creation by Sir Edward-Burne-Jones

Studies for the Days of Creation series by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Day 5 by Sir Edward-Burne-Jones

Working Together

by David Whyte


We shape our self
to fit this world

and by the world
are shaped again.

The visible
and the invisible

working together
in common cause,

to produce
the miraculous.

I am thinking of the way
the intangible air

passed at speed
round a shaped wing

easily
holds our weight.

Day 6 by Sir Edward Burne-JonesSo may we, in this life
trust

to those elements
we have yet to see

or imagine,
and look for the true

shape of our own self,
by forming it well

to the great
intangibles about us.


   roses

The drawings and paintings here are from the Days of Creation series by  Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1899). The five surviving paintings are now in the collection of the Fogg Museum at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts...where I loved to go visit them, back in my Boston days. These designs were also turned into stained glass windows by Burne-Jones and William Morris, for their Arts & Crafts company Morris & Co (which is still in operation). The window below (Day 4) is installed in the Chapel of Manchester College, Oxford.

"For every locomotive they build, I shall paint another angel.” - Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Days of Creation (Day 4), stained glass created by Morris & Co from a design by Sir Edward Burne-Jones"Working Together" was first published in The House of Belonging by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press) and appears online on Whyte's website. All rights reserved by the author.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

To start off today, we're heading back to medieval France and Germany....

Above: "The Mass of Notre Dame," a thoroughly goregous polyphonic mass by the 14th century French poet and composer Guillaume de Machaut. This is the full order of the mass, with multi-part Gegorian settings for the proprium parts, sung by the French Ensemble Gilles Binchois, under the direction of Dominique Vellard

Below, an improvisation on an extract from "Spiritus Sanctus" by the great 12th century German abbess and mystic Hildegard of Bingen.The piece is performed by Geraldine Zeller (soprano) and Helge Burggrabe (bass recorder), recorded in a dress rehearsal for a concert at Heppenheim Cathedral in Hesse, Germany (2010).

Next, a very beautiful contemporary piece that was inspired by Hildegard von Bingen and her music: 

"Vespers for St. Hildegard," composed and directed by Stevie Wishart, performed at York Minster (Cathedral) in the north of England by Wishart's terrific Early Music group, Sinfonye, accompanied by the University of York Chamber Choir. (Wishart is the woman with the hurdy-gurdy, next to the harpist.) The piece was commisioned for the 2013 York Early Music Festival.

We're firmly back in the 21st century with the ending piece: my absolute favorite Stevie Wishart composition, "Heed My Spreading Wings," performed by one of my favorite new musical groups, called Voice

Voice is a London-based acapella trio (Victoria Couper, Clemmie Franks, and Emily Burn) with a repetoire ranging from medieval to modern, drawn from traditions around the globe. In the video below, they sing "Heed My Spreading Wings" at Hugh Church in Faringdon, Oxfordshire (2012). The piece was commissioned by Voice for the New Music programme, Megaphones for the Unheard. This one could be my anthem....

Today's music is for my dear friend Midori Snyder.


What makes a good writing day?

Dylan Thomas' Boathouse in Laughame, Wales

Inside Dylan Thomas' BoathouseDylan Thomas' writing hut, The Boathouse, in Laugharne, Wales

Tracy Chevalier:

"A good day? I get up, I wake my teenage son up, we have breakfast, and he leaves at 8. That’s the cue for me to go to my office. My writing life has shifted slightly over the years, but what works best for me now is if I start writing immediately. I’ll check my email to make sure there’s nothing I need to deal with right away, then I read what I’ve written the day before. That jolts me into continuing. Ideally, the day before I’ve left a little bit left in the tank, so to speak. Not like Graham Greene — he used to write 500 words a day, and if the 500th word was in the middle of a sentence, he’d stop. I’m not that bad, but what’s really useful is to have a little left that you haven’t quite gotten down on paper. Then I can use that in the morning to get started. A lot of times, if the writing goes well, I’ll be done by 10. Sometimes I’m still working at 6. It depends on what I come up against."

James MacBride:

"I get up around 4:30 or 5 at the latest. I usually go until I get tired, until about 9 or 10. Then I quit and monkey around. That monkeying around could be anything: research, working out, paying bills, flossing my teeth…I have a whole array of delaying behaviors that usually don’t kick in until 9 or 10. At 5 in the morning I’m too sleepy to do anything but try to think about what I was last working on. My mind is clearer. Through the day sometimes I’ll practice music. I push through the day, get my son to school. Then after dinner, 7 or 8, I’ll have a go at writing again, if I’m really deep into it.

"I can write anywhere. I was on the train this morning writing. I usually write the first few pages longhand. I used to write a lot longhand. I still write my first 20-30 pages longhand. Then I move to the computer, or I’ll type it — I still use a typewriter, too. I used to use a typewriter a lot more. I needed it early in my career. The computer makes you rewrite and just hit the 'insert' key. The insert key is deadly for a writer. You really have to push forward, know you’re going to discard and rewrite everything. Man, I rewrite everything. Even emails I rewrite."

Robert Stephen Hawker's hut, Morwenstow< Cornwall

The view from Hawker's hut

Above: Hawker's Hut, built by poet Rpbert Stephen Hawker (1803-1875) near Morwenstow, Cornwall.
Below, a writer's hut built by poet Robert Duncan (1919-1988), also near Morwenstow.

Robert Duncan's writing hut

Inside Robert Duncan's writing hut

Emma Donohue:

"A day like today started around 4 in the morning, because often my kids wake me by yowling in their sleep. Then I’m bolt upright, wide awake, so I figure I might as well use that time in the middle of the night, so I hop up and do a bit of work. More typically I would get the kids off to school around 8:30, then I rush to my computer. I wish that what followed was actual writing. That would be bliss. But I admit that I first make my way through a fast-growing undergrowth of business....

"I know you’re supposed to do the writing first and leave the administrative stuff for later in the day, but I can’t see my way clear to do the writing until I’ve answered those wretched new emails. When I think back to when I had infinite time to write, before we had kids, I don’t think I did my best writing first thing in the morning. I need to warm up. Maybe in fact, by devoting the first hour of the day to silly business, I’m saving the better creative time for later. But sometimes the 'business' takes all day; I look up and it’s already 4, and I have to rush off to the bus stop to pick up the children."

Louise Erdrich:

"I don’t like getting up early, but I do because of school — driving my daughter to school is a good thing about my day. When I get back, either I walk/run our dog or go straight upstairs and sit down in the same chair I’ve had since 1981 — just the right arm height for a board to lay across and then I can sit there and write. A friend upholsters this chair every fifth year, and it is currently covered in red mohair velvet. My cousin’s quilt drapes the back of the chair. I am sort of obsessive about having things around me from my family — these objects pop up in the books."

George Bernard Shaw's rotating writing hut in Hertfordshire

Inside George Bernard Shaw's writing hutGeorge Bernard Shaw's writing shed in Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire. (It rotated to catch the best sunlight.)

Jane Goodall:

"The only time I have for writing is when I’m back home in England, in the house I grew up in, where all my things are, my books. Many times, I’ve got to try to get a lot of writing done in just, maybe, five days. That means setting the alarm for five o’clock. Desperately writing until breakfast, going back to write again. Always taking an hour off to spend with the dog. And in the evening I spend time with my sister — we own the house together and she lives in it with her family. Then I sometimes have to go back and write late into the night. It’s a very stressful way to write, high and edgy."

Mia Jian:

"Flora and I have four young children, so I write late into the night — the only time our home is silent. At three in the morning, I usually collapse on the narrow bed in my study, but am often woken a couple of hours later by one or both of our 3-year-old twins, who like to waddle down from their room and climb on top of me. At 8, I make pancakes for the children, then sleep again until 11. This is when the day really begins. I make myself a cup of tea, sit at my desk, phone my friends in Beijing, read for a while, then start thinking about what I am going to write."

Lev Grossman:

"I can’t write every day. I’m a binger. I like to go six or seven hours at a time, without a break, then go off somewhere and drink something."

Virginia Woolf's writing shed at Monks House in Sussex

Inside Virginia Woolf's writing shedVirgina Woolf's writing shed at Monk's House in Rodmell (near Lewes), Sussex

Margaret Atwood:

"I’d be lucky to have a morning routine! But let’s pretend…. I’d get up in the morning, have breakfast, have coffee, then go upstairs to the room where I write. I’d sit down and probably start transcribing from what I’d [hand]written the day before.... I don’t think there’s anything too unusual about [my study], except that it’s full of books and has two desks. On one desk there’s a computer that is not connected to the internet. On the other desk is a computer that is connected to the internet. You can see the point of that!"

Nicholson Baker:

"When I’m rewriting, and it’s progressing, I begin breathing audibly through my nose. I like to proofread in noisy restaurants, with my glasses off, staring close at the type. I love the feeling of sealing up a FedEx envelope — that soft, cool fibrous Tyvek bending around the corner of a block of page proofs — and sending it off. Lately, working on Traveling Sprinkler, I’ve been writing in the car, so what I see is whatever is out the windshield — usually leaves, other cars, fireflies. The dashboard is the desk, complete with coffee stains."

Vita Sackville-West's writing tower at Sissinghurst Castle

Inside Vita Sackville-West's writing towerVita Sackville-West's writing tower at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent

Khaled Hosseini:

"I find that writing a first draft is very difficult and laborious. It is also often quite disappointing. It hardly ever turns out to be what I thought it was, and it usually falls quite short of the ideal I held in my mind when I began writing it. I love to rewrite, however. A first draft is really just a sketch on which I add layer and dimension and shade and nuance and color. Writing for me is largely about rewriting. It is during this process that I discover hidden meanings, connections, and possibilities that I missed the first time around. In rewriting, I hope to see the story getting closer to what my original hopes for it were.

"I write while my kids are at school and the house is quiet. I sequester myself in my office with mug of coffee and computer. I can't listen to music when I write, though I have tried. I pace a lot. Keep the shades drawn. I take brief breaks from writing, 2-3 minutes, by strumming badly on a guitar. I try to get 2–3 pages in per day. I write until about 2 p.m. when I go to get my kids, then I switch to Dad mode."

Roald Dahl's writing hut

Inside Roald Dahl's writing hutRoald Dahl's writing hut at Gipsy House in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire

Karen Russell:

"I try to write 1000 words on a good day, about three pages. The reason for that amount, it feels right to me because most of the scenes I write are 3000-4000 words long. Not always, but on average. That means that I get 3-4 days per scene, which is good, because sometimes I’ll read it and feel — I feel different on different days, so it means I won’t have just one tone per scene. I have several different cracks at it.

"I’ll often be in the middle of writing and realize I don’t know what I’m writing about. For instance, today I’ve been writing a scene about a man who’s grafting apple trees. So I have to stop and look at my notes about grafting. Just now I was thinking, I still don’t really understand this. I need to order a book at the British Library and go and read it tomorrow. That’s what happens as I go. So what I’ll do is write a basic part of the scene, but for the grafting bit…I’ll put down three stars. Three stars in a manuscript for me means there’s something missing, I have to go back and fill it out. I don’t want it to stop my writing flow, but I’ll leave it aside and do the rest of the scene without it, come back and fill it in later. That’s a good interruption. A bad interruption is when I can’t focus and I wind up fiddling around online, having lunch with a friend, or something like that. What I’m aiming for is that concentrated time of focusing."

Henry William Williamson's writing hut

Inside Henry William Williamson's writing hutThe writing hut in North Devon where naturalist Henry William Williamson wrote Tarka the Otter.

"I know many writers who try to hit a set word count every day," Russell continues, "but for me, time spent inside a fictional world tends to be a better measure of a productive writing day. I think I’m fairly generative as a writer, I can produce a lot of words, but volume is not the best metric for me. It’s more a question of, did I write for four or five hours of focused time, when I did not leave my desk, didn’t find some distraction to take me out of the world of the story? Was I able to stay put and commit to putting words down on the page, without deciding mid-sentence that it’s more important to check my email, or 'research' some question online, or clean out the science fair projects in the back for my freezer?

"For me, a good writing day is when I can move forward inside a story, because I take so much pleasure in tinkering with sentences that I often have to fight my own impulse to dither and revise in order to keep the momentum of the narrative going. So if I can move in a linear way through the story, and stay zipped inside the story, not jinx myself with despair or frustration or over-confidence or self-consciousness, and be basically okay with not-knowing what is going to happen from one sentence to the next, that’s a great writing day. Writers are such excellent self-saboteurs, though. I swear, I can hijack my own writing day in a hundred ways — I can eject myself from a story because I’ve decided it’s 'going good.' There’s this excruciating aspect of joy, I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, where you almost want to interrupt it. For me, the experience of losing myself in a character can feel intolerably wonderful. So I’ve decided that the trick is just to keep after it for several hours, regardless of your own vacillating assessment of how the writing is going....

"Showing up and staying present is a good writing day."

Michael Pollan's writing cabim in Vermont

Michael Pollan's writing cabin

Inside Michael Pollan's cabinMichael Pollan's wrote a book about building this writing hut: A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams.

Jodi Picault:

"On a shelf above my computer are five letters that spell out W-R-I-T-E. Just in case I forget why I’m there."

Neil Gaiman's writing Gazebo, spring

Neil Gaiman's writing gazebo. Minnesota

Inside Neil Gaiman's writing gazeboNeil Gaiman's writing gazebo, Minneapolis, Minnesota


Are you holding it fast?

Doris Lessing

Jenny Diski wanted to be a writer, she says, "since I got the idea that each book I read was actually written by someone, that there was such a thing you could do and be in life." At fifteen years old, through a series of cirumstances, she came to live with Doris Lessing.

"Doris taught me how to be a writer," she recalls. "I don't mean she gave me lessons, or talked about writing. I can't remember her ever talking about writing, except to mumble occasionally that she was on a very difficult bit at the moment, meaning she was preoccupied, or to bellow as I thumped down the stairs past her closed door 'Be quiet. I'm working.' I was very impressed with the idea that writing was work. Even now, I always say, 'I'm working,' rather than 'I'm writing,' if anyone asks. She suggested books she thought I should read and began my instruction in the history of cinema with visits to the Academy and the National Film Theatre. But that was part of a general education of a teenager. It had nothing to do with me becoming a writer. We never talked about that. I never asked her to read anything I wrote. I learned what it was to be a writer from being around, in the house, day by day, observing her being one.

Cornishware coffee mugs

"Her morning started early when she went to the kitchen in her dressing-gown to make a cup of tea. Actually, a pint of tea in a huge blue and white striped mug, which she'd refill every couple of hours. If I happened to be up or on my way to school, she'd nod and I'd say hello, and take off. If I was at home, I'd hear the sharp clatter of keys hitting the platen. The shotgun sound of typing went on continuously for hours. She typed incredibly fast and only infrequently paused, perhaps for a sip of tea or to light a cigarette. When she did, the sudden silence was enormous, and then, whatever I was doing, I'd be on the alert, waiting for the clatter to start up again, rather like sleeping with someone with apnea when they stop breathing, and you hold your breath waiting for them to start again. She thought as she typed. And the most practical help she gave me was when she sent me to learn touch-typing, really so that I'd have secretarial skills, but, I realised quickly, by clattering myself and not having to think about typing, that it enabled the shortest possible distance between the thought in my mind and the fingers getting it on to the page.

"While she was writing, she conformed to her warning letter to me. She occasionally had supper with friends, but more or less went into what she referred to as purdah. Writing was the priority, and when something came along to interrupt – including sometimes my doings and misdoings – she dealt with it fast and efficiently, and with frequent sighs. Then she got back to work."

(I recommend Diski's full essay, published in The Guardian here.)

Books by Doris Lessing

Lessing herself said: "Writers are often asked, How do you write? With a wordprocessor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand? But the essential question is, 'Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write?' Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas - inspiration.

"If a writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn.

"When writers talk to each other, what they discuss is always to do with this imaginative space, this other time. 'Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?' "

Doris LessingPlease note: If you experience problems reading or posting comments (as I'm unable to do myself), don't worry. Typepad is aware of the problem and working to correct it.


Primroses and violets along a woodland trail

Bunny Girl & Friend copyright T. Windling

Primroses on the woodland path

Tilly and I will be out of the office over the long holiday weekend, and back again on Wednesday, April 23.

Make that Thursday, instead, due to recent DDoS attacks effecting Typepad, our blogging platform. Many Typepad blogs (including this one) are experiencing problems with posting and commenting -- but the company is working hard to get everything up and running again asap.


When the magic isn't working

One of those days

We all have them: the off days, the slow days, the dull days, the befuddled days, the days when nothing goes quite right. The days we forget how to write, how to paint, how to sing or sculpt or design or teach or cook or parent or do much of anything creative at all; when knowledge dries up, inspiration shrivels, and we reach inward but nothing comes out. I'm not having One of Those Days right now, mind you...but I certainly will again, and sooner than I'd like, no doubt. This is part of the creative process, too, and thus deserving of our attention.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad DayIn "Why I Write," Francis Spufford describes what a bad work day feels like for him:

"[T]here’s the gluey fumbling of the attempts to gain traction on the empty screen, there’s the misshapen awkwardness of each try at a sentence (as if you’d been equipped with a random set of pieces from different jigsaws). After a time, there’s the tetchy pacing about, the increasingly bilious nibbling, the simultaneous antsiness and flatness as the failure of the day sinks in. After a longer time -- two or three or four or five days of failure -- there’s the deepening sense of being a fraud. Not only can you not write bearably now; you probably never could. Trips to bookshops become orgies of self-reproach and humiliation. Look at everybody else’s fluency. Look at the rivers of adequate prose that flow out of them. It’s obvious that you don’t belong in the company of these real writers, who write so many books, and oh such long ones. Last, there’s the depressive inertia that flows out of sustained failure at the keyboard, and infects the rest of life with grey minimalism, making it harder to answer letters, return library books, bother to cook meals not composed of pasta."

Ouch. And yet, so true.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad DayThere are days, says Neil Gaiman, "when you sit down and every word is crap. It is awful. You cannot understand how or why you are writing, what gave you the illusion or delusion that you would every have anything to say that anybody would ever want to listen to. You're not quite sure why you're wasting your time. And if there is one thing you're sure of, it's that everything that is being written that day is rubbish. I would also note that on those days (especially if deadlines and things are involved) is that I keep writing. The following day, when I actually come to look at what has been written, I will usually look at what I did the day before, and think, 'That's not quite as bad as I remember. All I need to do is delete that line and move that sentence around and its fairly usable. It's not that bad.'

"What is really sad and nightmarish," Neil continues, "(and I should add, completely unfair, in every way. And I mean it -- utterly, utterly, unfair!) is that two years later, or three years later, although you will remember very well, very clearly, that there was a point in this particular scene when you hit a horrible Writer's Block from Hell, and you will also remember there was point in this particular scene where you were writing and the words dripped like magic diamonds from your fingers -- as if the Gods were speaking through you and every sentence was a thing of beauty and magic and brilliance. You can remember just as clearly that there was a point in the story, in that same scene, when the characters had turned into pathetic cardboard cut-outs and nothing they said mattered at all. You remember this very, very clearly. The problem is you are now doing a reading and you cannot for the life of you remember which bits were the gifts of the Gods and dripped from your fingers like magical words and which bits were the nightmare things you just barely created and got down on paper somehow!! Which I consider most unfair."

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Douglas Rushkoff points out: "The creative process has more than one kind of expression. There’s the part you could show in a movie montage — the furious typing or painting or equation solving where the writer, artist, or mathematician accomplishes the output of the creative task. But then there’s also the part that happens invisibly, under the surface. That’s when the senses are perceiving the world, the mind and heart are thrown into some sort of dissonance, and the soul chooses to respond.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day"That response doesn’t just come out like vomit after a bad meal. There’s not such thing as pure expression. Rather, because we live in a social world with other people whose perceptual apparatus needs to be penetrated with our ideas, we must formulate, strategize, order, and then articulate. It is that last part that is visible as output or progress, but it only represents, at best, 25 percent of the process.

"Real creativity transcends time. If you are not producing work, then chances are you have fallen into the infinite space between the ticks of the clock where reality is created."

My favorite reflection on the subject of Those Days comes from Dani Shapiro's Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of the Creative Life.

"When my son was little," she says, "he loved a book by Judith Viorst called Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Poor Alexander. He woke up with gum in his hair, he ended up in the middle seat during carpool, his mom forgot to pack dessert in his lunch box, he had a cavity at the dentist, and just when he thought things couldn't get any worse, he saw people kissing on television. You can feel the momentum of a day turning against you, and if it does, sometimes the best thing to do is crawl back into bed and wait for it to pass.

6a00e54fcf7385883401a73dacf18d970dShapiro advises that writers (and other arts freelancers) must learn to be kind to themselves. "What we're doing isn't easy. We have chosen to spend the better part of our lives in solitude, wrestling with our deepest thoughts, obsessions and concerns. We unleash the beasts of memory; we peer into Pandora's box. We do this all in the spirit of faith and exploration, with no guarantee that what we will produce is worthwhile. We don't call in sick. We don't take mental health days. We don't get two weeks paid vacation, or summer Fridays, or holiday weekends. Often, we are out of step with the tempo of those around us. It can feel isolating and weird. And so, when the day turns against us, we might do well to follow the advice of Buddhist writer Sylvia Boorstein, who talks to herself as if she's a child she loves very much: Sweetheart, she'll say. Darling. Honey. That's all right. There, there. Go take a walk. Take a bath. Take a drive. Bake a cake. Nap a little. You'll try again tomorrow."

For some reason I imagine this in Delia Sherman's voice, perhaps because Delia is so wise and sensible.

Walk the dog. Read a book. You'll try again tomorrow.

And indeed, we do.


Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

The drawings above are from the American children's book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, written by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz.  I often mutter Alexamder's refrain of despair -- "I think I'll move to Australia" -- whenever  it's One of Those Days. My English husband, who doesn't know the book, always looks a bit perplexed...but it makes me feel better.


The eye and the ear

Wild daffodils

"Ancient man took in the world mainly by listening, and listening meant remembering. Thus humans both shaped and were shaped by the oral tradition. The passage of culture went from mouth to ear to mouth. The person who did not listen well, who was tone deaf to the universe, was soon dead. The finest rememberers and the most attuned listeners were valued: the poets, the storytellers, the shamans, the seers. In culture after culture, community after community, the carriers of the oral tradition were honored. For example, in ancient Ireland the ollahms, the poet-singers, were more highly thought of than the king. The king was only given importance in times of war....

"But the eye and ear are different listeners, are difference audiences. And the literary storyteller is one who must bring eye and ear into synchronization. But it is a subtle art. Just as the art of typography has been called 'the art invisible,' subliminal in the sense that it changes or manipulates the reader's perceptions without advertising its own presence, so, too, the art of storytelling in the printed book must persuade and capitvate. It must hold the reader as the spoken tale holds the listener, turning the body to stone but not the mind or heart."  - Jane Yolen (Touch Magic)

Tilly and the daffodils

"The difficulty for me in writing -- among the difficulties -- is to write language that can work quietly on a page for a reader who doesn’t hear anything. Now for that, one has to work very carefully with what is in between the words. What is not said. Which is measure, which is rhythm, and so on. So, it is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power." - Toni Morrison ("The Art of Fiction," The Paris Review)

Wild daffodils

"One method of revision that I find both loathsome and indespensible is reading my work aloud when I'm finished. There are things I can hear -- the repetition of words, a particularly flat sentence -- that I don't otherwise catch. My friend Jane Hamilton, who is a paragon of patience, has me read my novels to her once I finish. She'll lie across the sofa, eyes closed, listening, and from time to time she'll raise her hand. 'Bad metaphor,' she'll say, or 'You've already used the word inculcate.' She's never wrong."   - Ann Patchett ("The Getaway Car," This is the Story of a Happy Marriage)

Wild daffodils

"I've always tried out my material on my dogs first. You know, with Angel, he sits there and listens and I get the feeling he understands everything. But with Charley, I always felt he was just waiting to get a word in edgewise. Years ago, when my red setter chewed up the manuscript of Of Mice and Men, I said at the time that the dog must have been an excellent literary critic." - John Steinbeck (Journal of a Novel)

Wild daffodils

Daffodils on the kitchen tableAbove: Wild daffodils in the woods, and in a jar on the kitchen table.


Built by books

Fairy Garland illustrated by Edmund Dulac

In her 2012 novel How it All Began, Penelope Lively describes her central character, Charlotte Rainsford, in a manner that many of us can relate to:

Edmund Dulac"Forever, reading has been central, the necessary fix, the support system," writes Lively. "[Charlotte's] life has been informed by reading. She has read not just for distraction, sustenance, to pass the time, but she has read in a state of primal innocence, reading for enlightenment, for instruction, even. She has read to find out how sex works, how babies are born, she has read to discover what it is to be good, or bad; she has read to find out if things are the same for others as they are for her – then, discovering that frequently they are not, she has read to find out what it is that other people experience that she is missing.

"Specifically, she read bits of the Old Testament when she was ten because of all that stuff about issues of blood, and the things thou shalt not do with thy neighbour’s wife. All of this was confusing rather than enlightening. She got hold of a copy of Fanny Hill when she was eighteen, and was aghast, but also intrigued.

"She read Rosamond Lehmann when she was nineteen, because her heart had been broken. She saw that such suffering is perhaps routine, and, while not consoled, became more stoical.

"She read Saul Bellow, in her thirties, because she wanted to know how it is to be American. After reading, she wondered if she was any wiser, and read Updike, Roth, Mary McCarthy and Alison Lurie in further pursuit of Arthur Rackhamthe matter. She read to find out what it was like to be French or Russian in the nineteenth century, to be a rich New Yorker then, or a Midwestern pioneer. She read to discover how not to be Charlotte, how to escape the prison of her own mind, how to expand, and experience.

"Thus has reading wound in with living, each a complement to the other. Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations and information, of knowledge, some of which she can summon up, much of which is half lost, but is in there somewhere, and has had an effect on who she is and how she thinks. She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without."

''The Good Book'' by Katherine Cameron

“I need fiction, I am an addict," Francis Spufford declared in his poignant memoir, The Child That Books Built. "This is not a figure of speech. I don’t quite read a novel a day, but I certainly read some of a novel every day, and usually some of several. There is always a heap of opened paperbacks face down near the bed, always something current on the kitchen table to reach for over coffee when I wake up. Colonies of prose have formed in the bathroom and in the dimness of the upstairs landing, so that I don’t go without text even in the leftover spaces of the house where I spend least time….I can be happy with an essay or a history if it interlaces like a narrative, if its author uses fact or impression to make a story-like sense, but fiction is kind, fiction is the true stuff....I don’t give it up. It is entwined too deeply within my history, it has been forming the way I see for too long."

"Reading was my escape and my comfort, " Paul Aster concurs, "my consolation, my stimulant of choice: reading for the pure pleasure of it, for the beautiful stillness that surrounds you when you hear an author's words reverberating in your head.”

"When I got [my] library card, that was when my life began," says Rita Mae Brown, and I know just what she means.

Reading at the Desk by Carl Larsson

Thus I've been surprised (and a little alarmed) recently by conversations in several of the different spheres I inhabit in which smart, creative people admit that they haven't read many books (in some cases, any books) in a long while. My god, I keep thinking, if artistic and literary friends aren't reading, what hope for the rest of our culture?

Not reading is something I can't really fathom. I'm not boasting here; my reading habit is compulsive, like Spufford's, bordering on obsession, and I'd spend my last dollar on a book, not food. (I know this, because I occasionally did so in the difficult days of my youth.) I cannot imagine how I would survive were I confined to this one single life, this one problematic body, this one limited, fragile consciousness, instead of roaming the wide, wondrous world through the magic of ink and the alphabet. 

There's a famous scene (famous to bookish folks, anyway) in the American television show The Gilmore Girls in which teenaged Rory fills her backpack with books to read before catching the bus to school...explaining to her mother that she needs a pack big enough for all of them because each one -- Reading at the Breakfast Table by Carl Larssona novel, a biography, short stories, essays, etc. -- is necessary for different reading moods. Yes! My housemate found this hilarious, since it was the way I loaded my backpack too (in the days before e-books, of course). One of my great fears in life is being stuck somewhere with nothing to read. Oh, the horror!

"Writing is a form of therapy," said Graham Greene; "sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation." Greene's words can apply to reading too--

I was about to write: "since I don't know how people can cope without reading." But in fact I do know, for I once spent several months unable to read (or to write) while recovering from meningitis, which affected both my vision and my ability to concentrate on the linear unfolding of a text. Even audiobooks were too hard to follow; I was reduced to watching old episodes of Buffy and Angel: simple, visual, and familiar enough that I could waver in and out of the story. I recall saying over and over to friends: I just don't feel like me. Who am I, if I'm not reading or writing?  It was, I am very glad to say, a temporary experience -- but profoundly unsettling, and just plain profound. It is frightening, yes, but also enlightening when life strips away those things that we most depend on...and then gives them back again.

Reading on the Bench by Carl Larsson

Even stranger than hearing that literary friends are no longer reading (or read only online) is meeting aspiring writers who rarely read...and this happens much more often than you'd think. The key word is "aspiring," however -- for I can't recall a single one of the many successful writers I've edited over the years who wasn't also a passionate and voracious reader of books, of one sort or another. Such alien creatures must exist, somewhere, since all things are possible under the sun, but I don't know how I'd work with a non-bookish writer. What common language would be speak?

Of course, sometimes when a novelist is at work, he or she will avoid reading some books or authors in order to avoid certain kinds of influence (a rhythm of prose that interfere with one's own, for example) -- although this varies from writer to writer, and also between one stage of writing and another. For me, when I'm on a first or last draft, I tend to limit the amount of fiction I'm reading (making up for it with nonfiction instead) so that my narrative voice is not overlayed by another fiction writer's style...but for in-between drafts I can, and do, read pretty much anything. I'm not worried, then, about influence; on the contrary, I seek it out: learning this from one writer and that from another; inspired by good books, educated (on what to avoid) by bad ones; filling the well so that the internal Waters of Story will never run dry.

Arthur Rackham

"A great painting, or symphony, or play, doesn't diminish us," assures Madeleine L'Engle, "but enlarges us, and we, too, want to make our own cry of affirmation to the power of creation behind the universe. This surge of creativity has nothing to do with competition, or degree of talent. When I hear a superb pianist, I can't wait to get to my own piano, and I play about as well now as I did when I was ten. A great novel, rather than discouraging me, simply makes me want to write. This response on the part of any artist is the need to make incarnate the new awareness we have been granted through the genius of someone else."

 Cincinnati Public Library

"Read, read, read," advised William Faulkner. "Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window."

Holland House Library in London during the Blitz, 1940

James Baldwin was also a child "built by books," in New York City during the '20s and '30s. "You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read," he recalled.  "It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive."

"Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another's skin, another's voice, another's soul," says Joyce Carol Oates

Or as Betty Smith wrote in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943): "The world was hers for the reading."

Reading in the garden at Weaver's Cottage, 2007; photograph by Alan Lee

Images above: "The Fairy Garland" and "Little Girl in a Book" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), a pen & ink drawing by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), The Good Book" by Katherine Cameron (1874-1965), three paintings by Carl Larsson (1853-1919), "Making Clothes for Her Dolls" by Arthur Rackham, and three photgraphs: boys in front of the Public Library in Cincinatti, Ohio (exact date unknown), the Holland House Library in London during the Blitz (1940), and reading in the garden at Weaver's Cottage (2007, photograph by Alan Lee).

Related posts: Reading in the Woods, Libraries Great and Small, The Communion of Words, and In the Forest of Stories (Parts I, II, & III).


The glassy hill

The Black Bull of Norroway by John D Batten

Today, two poems based on related fairy tales: "The Black Bull of Norroway," from England, and "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," from Scandinavia....

Norroway in February
Black Bull of Norroway by Anita Lobelby Hannah Sanghee Park

The glassy hill I clomb for thee

For surefooted step, hooves behoove the haver.
The sky redid blue, the woman wavered,

and the black bull (the vanquisher), vanished.
She called out to nothing, and in vain shed

tears until she reached the glass hill’s impasse.
Served her standard fairy tale penance, passim,

served her seven to be given iron
shoes to — at last — scale the hill, the earned

neared end. Each step conquered territory,
The Black Bull of Norroway by Anita Lobelat last, the sleeping prince-once-bull, torrid tearing

of clothes, tearing on one’s clothes, three nights of this
until the prince awakes. How she, exhausted,

must have felt in the at long last, the ever after.
Happily, I guess, but a long time until laughter.

 

         flowers

- Published in the November 2013 issue of Poetry magazine.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by NielsenAn excerpt from
The Seven Pairs of Iron Shoes

by Tracina Jackson-Adams

The first pair of shoes I wore out
was for your forgiveness. Racked with guilt,
I pursued you with single intent,
barely ate or slept, accepted the heat,
the cold, the wet misery and stumbling weariness
as my due. I had failed you. It was only just.

Throughout the second pair, I hated you.
I followed you only because I forgot I could stop.

Many places looked familiar by the third pair,
and I found I knew the coming weather by the taste
of the wind. I was no longer afraid of snakes,
and I placed my feet with care
So as not to trample small things. By the fourth,
I moved silently and did not realize it.

From then on, I roamed for wonder alone,
and slipped through the years like a wolf
East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Kay Nielsenthrough tall grass. I had long since stopped counting
when I heard stories of a land east
of the sun and west of the moon,
and I thought, there's a place I haven't walked to yet....


                  flowers

- Published in Star*Line magazine, issue number 25.2, 2002, & reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, Vol. 16,  2003.  The full text of the poem can be found online on various blogs such as this one -- though I don't know if it's ever appeared online with the author's permission, which is why I use an excerpt only here. I do recommend seeking out the full poem; it's a wonderful (and wonderfully sensible) reworking of the fairy tale theme.


The Black Bull of Norroway by John D. Batten

Art above: "Black Bull of Norroway" illustration by John D. Batten (1860-1932), two "Black Bull of Norroway"  illustrations by Anita Lobelthree "East of Sun, West of the Moon" illustrations by Kay Nielsen (1886-1957), and another "Black Bull of Norroway" illustration by John D. Batten.  All rights to Anita Lobel's art and the two poems above are reserved by their creators.